Breaking down the graduate transfer QB myth

With Washington State's second graduate transfer quarterback in two seasons, some fans are beginning to express concern.

With the announced transfer of Eastern Washington gunslinger Gage Gubrud to Mike Leach’s quarterback arsenal, some Cougar fans are wary of the long-term implications. Some believe that relying on one-for-one players will discourage a high school senior from commit to a program as their job will be taken by someone not currently on the roster.

There is also fear that a revolving door of leaders will hurt team morale and be detrimental to the program. But is there any validity to these claims? To get some clarity on the subject, let’s turn to our neighbors in Eugene and see how they handled back-to-back transfers behind center: an analysis of the 2015-17 Oregon Ducks.

First of all, let’s give a quick recap of Oregon’s fall from national prominence starting in 2015. Coming off a 2014 campaign that claimed a 13-2 record and an appearance in the CFP National Championship game, the Ducks were led by Heisman winning quarterback Marcus Mariota.  After Mariota declared for the NFL draft, Oregon was left with an inexperienced quarterback roster consisting of three freshmen without a single college start to their names.

With high pressures and expectations, third-year head coach Mark Helfrich secured the highly touted Eastern Washington QB Vernon Adams Jr. as a senior graduate transfer in 2015. After a 9-4 season that many considered a failure (the first time Oregon failed to win 10 or more games since 2007), Helfrich once again went the graduate transfer route – this time for Dakota Prukop of Montana State.

A hopeful 2016 campaign quickly fell apart as a 2-0 start turned into 2-5 and eventually a 4-8 record; that was good for last in the Pac-12 North.  They missed the postseason for the first time since 2004, and Helfrich was fired at the conclusion of the season. After a miserable start to the season – highlighted by a meltdown against your Washington State Cougars – Prukop was benched in favor of true freshman Justin Herbert.  Herbert went on to start for the next three seasons and will return for his senior year in 2019.

With this in mind, let’s break down the two main concerns of the transfer trend:

  1. High school quarterback recruiting will suffer
  2. Lack of sustaining leadership will hurt the program

Recruiting metrics provide a more or less objective pathway to either confirm or disprove this first point.  According to recruiting figures from 247Sports, Oregon saw somewhat consistent quarterback recruiting metrics from the years preceding 2015 and all the way to the current 2019 class. In years 2012-14, the peak of Oregon’s dynasty, their QB recruits averaged a .9134 rating – all good for 4-star evaluations.

In 2015, the year that brought Adams Jr. to Eugene, the Ducks claimed a letter of intent from Travis Jonsen, a .9529, 4-star recruit that was the fourth ranked dual threat QB in the land.  National signing day took place after Vernon Adams Jr. had committed, meaning that Jonsen knew fully well what he was signing up for. Yet he still inked the dotted line.

Helfrich signed two quarterbacks in 2016 – 4-star Terry Wilson (.8858) and 3-star Justin Herbert (.8584). But once again a graduate quarterback won the job coming out of fall camp in the form of Dakota Prukop. But the recruiting class immediately following the disastrous 2016 campaign produced yet another 4-star recruit, Braxton Burmeister.

You may remember him from the 2017 matchup against WSU in Eugene as he took place of an injured Herbert.  But nonetheless, following the worst season for the Ducks since 1991 and a second straight graduate transfer starter behind center, Oregon still signed a top-10 QB.

All quarterbacks on Oregon’s 2018 roster had committed between 2015-17, the years immediately following the Adams Jr.-Prukop era, and they averaged a high school rating of .8982. Ironically, Justin Herbert – the current three-year starter thought to be a top pick in the 2020 draft – was the lowest rated of them all. 

There was a decrease in average rating from 2012-14 (.9134) to 2015-17 (.8982), yet the only notable name to emerge from either group is Herbert.  Considering the 2012-14 recruits were being sold a program at national prominence and the 2015-17 bunch saw a shell of a program that once was, this drop is understandable.

A bigger concern is consistently introducing new senior leadership into a locker room will damage internal development and hurt the program long term.  At first glance, the 2015-17 Oregon Ducks seem to be a poster child for this belief. 

The Ducks went from 13-2 to 4-8 in the two years of transfer quarterbacks leading the offense.  But how much of a role this played is highly debatable.

The Ducks returned just a single starter on defense in 2015 giving up 37.5 points a game. And in 2016, UO was breaking in new coordinators for both defense and offense. Not to mention, Chip Kelly’s recruits were on their way out the door due to graduation.

A combination of new coaches, less athletic recruits, and a pitiful defense does not bode well for any program. It is clear that there were so many internal problems with the Ducks program in the years coming off the Mariota era that blaming the issue on a new quarterback each year seems fallacious at best.

Washington State sits in a different seat after finally having some continuity in its coaching staff – recently signing Defensive Coordinator Tracy Claeys to a three-year deal – and continuing to bring in better athletes than the previous year.

Both Minshew and Gubrud were relatively low-profile transfer prospects but possess qualities that perfectly match the Air Raid system.  And based on recruiting metrics, the QB position has not dropped off in any significant amount.

While the Cougs are coming off their most wins in school history, a slight regression seems highly probable; however, Leach has proven to develop quarterbacks better than any other coach in the conference – if not the country.  Regardless of who is named starter when the Cougs open against New Mexico State on Aug. 31, I can assure you this:

We will be fine.

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